Inventive Games That Teach Kids About Empathy and Social Skills

| April 18, 2014 | 42 Comments
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 By Tanner Higgin, Graphite

Play is nothing if not social. Games organize play, allowing us to wrangle and experiment with the world. When we play games, more often than not, it’s us under the microscope.

Video games, however, have been a bit of an aberration in the history of play and games. Many of them have been solitary experiences. That’s changing, though. We’re in the midst of a multiplayer video game renaissance that’s bringing people together. Equally exciting is the trend in design toward video games that build social skills and encourage players to reflect on themselves and their relationships. Here are a few games that do just that.

1. The Social Express

This app features a series of appealing animated episodes that model real world social situations. Rather than passively watching the scenes play out, kids have choices to make, such as helping the characters navigate common social interactions, follow social cues, and make the appropriate decisions. Along the way, they learn key social skills in a safe environment that makes it much easier to transfer the skills into daily life.

socialexpresspro2

2. Thomas Was Alone

Billed as an “indie minimalist platformer,” Thomas Was Alone’s characters are just colorful shapes, yet they all have distinct personalities. The game’s well-crafted narration provides the characters with personality strengths and weaknesses mirrored in differing abilities and mechanics. By guiding these characters through the world and empathizing with them, players naturally map themselves and their relationships on the characters. It’s a great example of how a single player experience can still build social and emotional intelligence. One teacher on Graphite loves that it focuses on “character building” and “made… students stop and think.”

Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone

3. Way

The most experimental and perhaps most irresistibly interesting game on this list, Way makes collaboration and communication crucial to success. Players get paired together and then guide each other through a level using gesture and non-verbal cues. Players take turns being the guide and guided, experiencing what it’s like to be responsible for someone else as well as what it’s like to place trust in another. It’s a simple but smart concept that helps kids be better collaborators while simultaneously getting them to think critically about all the myriad ways we communicate.

Way

Way

4. Social Adventures

Developed by learning and behavior experts, Social Adventures offers a treasure trove of resources for caregivers or educators looking for ways to help kids –particularly those with learning difficulties or special needs – learn about and practice basic social strategies, skills, and routines. While it’s not necessarily a game, it features a host of activities and games caregivers and educators can facilitate with individual kids or small groups.

Social Adventures

Social Adventures

All of the games above are designed – both explicitly and implicitly – to be pro-social, but what about games that aren’t? Caregivers and educators need to recognize that all of the games kids play — whether on a field, tabletop, or screen – can be deeply social.  Kids need the tools to make sure that these gaming experiences are enriching and productive. The games on this list are a good first spark to get kids on their way.

Click here for more reviews of games and apps.

Tanner Higgin is Senior Manager, Education Content, at Common Sense Media, creator of Graphite ™, a free service for educators in search of the best apps, games, and websites rated for learning. This post is one in a series collaboration. Games included here have received high ratings on Graphite by educators and by the editorial staff at Common Sense Media. Go to Graphite to read full reviews of games and how teachers use them for learning in class.

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  • Josh

    Way sounds like a game emulating the process that journey for PS3 showed you, by having two players who can’t communicate but still work together.

    • Walt

      WAY actually predates Journey by about a year.

      • http://www.tannerhiggin.com Tanner Higgin

        Indeed. Way introduced a mechanic that was folded into Journey thanks to Chris Bell who worked on both games. We’ll be reviewing Journey on Graphite (http://www.graphite.org) soon.

  • Jon Zo

    I had a wonderful time playing Journey with strangers. The inability to chat makes the bond between the characters more powerful (and safer for kids.) In Portal 2 playing as one of the two robots your character also uses nonverbal communication.

  • Brittani H.

    I’ve played Thomas was Alone! It’s really quite fun. The narration really makes you feel attached to the characters and gives you a sense of their interpersonal dynamics. I never knew I could get so emotionally invested in parallelograms.

  • John Bell

    Is it fair to say that Journey was really the precursor to these sorts of games? I would like to think so. Clearly, it is still fresh in people’s minds and it was, at its core, an art experiment that explored this sort of interaction (among other themes) in such compelling depth. Sure, Portal 2 was released first (though, Journey may have been in development for longer?) and has a sort of similar mechanic, but I don’t think it really demonstrated the social power of this sort of communication paradigm so effectively as Journey did.

    • Saunders

      Co-creator of way was one of the designers on journey

  • http://pinkyluxschoolforgirls.com wendelmeldrum

    If empathy is learned from these games does that mean that violence is learned from war games?

    • Me

      You must rephrase it: one can learn acts of violence through games. As in other spheres of life.

      • http://pinkyluxschoolforgirls.com wendelmeldrum

        That works. It’s interesting that learning empathy is possible but it’s hard for the culture to admit that we learn violence or desensitizing of violence from a game.

      • Tom Williams

        [citation needed]

    • Miriam Breslauer

      If all a person plays is non-cooperative war games and doesn’t balance out their repertoire with other types of games, then they may find themselves less considerate of others than they would otherwise be.

      That said, team games in general no matter the genre can build positive social skills. Even if it is a group of degenerates running around doing bad things in the game.

      • http://pinkyluxschoolforgirls.com wendelmeldrum

        I can’t help but think there must be at least a desensitizing element to war games. It’s good to see games that inspire empathy.

        • http://mario0318.com/ mario

          Arguably, even war games can teach empathy and team building.

          • http://www.tannerhiggin.com Tanner Higgin

            I’d recommend Brendan Keogh’s book Killing Is Harmless — a critical examination of Spec Ops: The Line — for those of you interested in exploring how war games might offer a more complex depiction of violence than assumed.

      • Mirko

        “If all a person plays is non-cooperative war games and doesn’t balance out their repertoire with other types of games, then they may find themselves less considerate of others than they would otherwise be.”

        Do you have some evidence to backup this claim?

    • Chip

      In these games people practice empathy directly through actions and thought. I believe war games do not directly map to violent actions because there is a degree of separation. You do not directly perform violent actions to play those games. I think war games at their worst may influence players to lean towards more violent resolutions but largely are not teaching players to be violent. Playing a war game doesn’t improve your ability to fight while these games may improve your ability to emote.

  • R. Kingsboro

    Kingdom Hearts.

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  • Mike

    A very early cooperative game, which was great in my opinion, was the original “Goonies” game on the old Atari 800 computer. Each level included two members of the Goonies team. They had to work together in order to get through the level. On character, for instance, would have to distract the thieves by starting the counterfeit money machine, while the other would sneak into the basement and open the way to the trap door… It required really good timing and coordination … something lacking in many of todays “too easy” games.

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  • tedthefed

    …Is there any empirical evidence that any of these games build empathy or social skills?

  • Cynthia Trevino

    Hello Tanner,

    Thank you so much for including The Social Express in your review. The Team is so honored! Our mission is to help kids learn social skills and practice social awareness that will help them fit it better at school! Thanks again.

    Cynthia Trevino
    The Social Express Team

  • Maiyli78
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  • http://lambangdaihoc.org/ toilabang123

    Is it fair to say that Journey was really the precursor to these sorts of games? I would like to think so.

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  • adrian

    I Like to playgames on smartphones, pc or xbox

  • gloriarood

    Great list..!! Thanks for post i love to play games at my free time and some of game i was not familiar with some of games.. I had played Tomas Was Alone it was great to play…!!!

    I would also love to suggest another kids game named Dirty Kids – Fun Kids Game its extremely FREE to download its really fun and addictive kids game. Its kid friendly game, with great graphics, sound, animation and lots more. visit once i m sure you will not get bored….!!!

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.gameimax.dirtykids

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  • Karen Head

    Hi Tanner: Thank you so much for including Social Adventures in your list. You made our day! Our mission is to encourage social growth through active play but we also recognize the value of kids learning while playing virtual games. We are thrilled to know about these other programs.

    Karen Head
    all4mychild

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  • Ron Stadsklev

    My take is: Great, Wonderful, lets have lots more. I really like his statement
    “games put us under the microscope” Very very true. That is very true in sports and it can be for good or for bad. It depends upon the flavor of the experience and the coach. But on a computer it is not REAL. That’s why some of us early gamers saw S/G as a LABORATORY, FOR SOCIAL SCIENCES. I like his statement “a good spark to get kids on the way” The key word is ABOUT. It sure is great to start getting kids to gain “knowledge” about social interaction. I would classify these as “Learning Games” You learn about…….. and that is the first step. Now lets create a simulation game and see how they do in it. I think learning games like this are especially valuable in the young when they are first trying to learn about how to be and not be socially responsible.

    http://www.linkedin.com/pub/ron-stadsklv/35/989/79b
    http://ron.stadsklev.info

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  • niks

    Cool thing about pc games :)

  • Nancy Richards

    Don’t know about empathy but these cooking flash game series – Papas Games are really awesome, my kiddos love em, especially Freezeria

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  • Parks J Daniel

    Games & apps are great way to teach something to kids. All the games described in this post is very helpful to learn something. Among all The Social Express is sounds very interesting to teach kids about social skills.

    Get another toddlers game which helpful to teach different activities. Get it from: http://goo.gl/28do78

  • laurakelly

    It’s a nice post. Thanks for sharing. It’s helpful to me.
    I have launched game for kids & it’s also FREE to Download from Google Play..!! I’m sure that kids really love this game..!! so download it & give rating..!!

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.gameimax.smellyclothes